Signs of Reincarnation

This weekend saw the release of Dr. James G. Matlock‘s new book Signs of Reincarnation, which will no doubt become the book of reference for those wanting a thorough, scholarly introduction to the current state of reincarnation research.

Reincarnation research, you may ask? Yes, there is such a thing, and there has been for many years. The late Dr. Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia is the most well-known (and most accomplished) researcher in this area and began his work in the field back in the 1960s, traveling around the world to investigate cases in which children claimed to remember living lives as other people. Stevenson not only documented these children’s statements about their previous lives, but also went about searching for and identifying the deceased individuals in question, showing that these children weren’t just imagining things but were often giving enough reliable information about these strangers’ lives to make solid identification of them possible. Over the course of his career, Stevenson collected hundreds of reincarnation cases that he was able to “solve” in this way, for the first time bringing scientific respectability to the belief in reincarnation.

But reincarnation research didn’t end with Stevenson. Several other adventurous scholars have followed in his steps by investigating cases of purported past-life memories, including Dr. Satwant Pasricha, Dr. Antonia Mills, Dr. Erlendur Haraldsson, Dr. Jürgen Keil, Dr. Jim B. Tucker, Hernani Andrade, and, recently, Matlock himself.

While Matlock’s contributions to the case literature are certainly important–not least because he has investigated cases in North America, where they are not as easy to find as in countries where belief in reincarnation is more common–I believe Matlock’s most important contribution to the field of reincarnation studies is his synthesis of the existing research in this area. For several years, he has been teaching a course on reincarnation, first at Atlantic University, then through the Alvarado Zingrone Institute for Research and Education, and it is the wealth of material that he has collected and analyzed in the process of developing that course that makes his new book Signs of Reincarnation such a valuable resource for anyone desiring to know the current state of the field.

Signs of Reincarnation begins with one of the cases of past-life memory that Matlock himself investigated: the case of Rylann O’Bannion, who at three years old began speaking of memories of her death in a previous life, memories that were detailed enough for an identification to be made with a girl named Jennifer Schultz, who had died three decades previously at the age of 11 when a Pan Am airplane crashed into her neighborhood in Kenner, Louisiana. Matlock carefully lays out not just the statements made by the young Rylann about her previous life and death (78% of which could be shown to be true of Jennifer) but strong behavioral similarities between the girls as well: for instance, their habits of opening and closing the drawers in their bathroom vanities and of creating yarn owls perched on sticks to give to friends.

Matlock’s exposition of Rylann’s case demonstrates the detailed method of investigation that Stevenson made de rigueur in reincarnation research, and Matlock is careful to emphasize that it is not just episodic memories that are shared between the deceased and the living people who remember having lived their lives. As Rylann’s case shows, shared behaviors can be just as important in confirming a past-life identification, as can skills such as the ability to speak or understand a language not learned in the current life, as well as shared physical traits, particularly birthmarks that correspond uncannily to the location of wounds on the deceased person’s body.

At the same time, Matlock is interested not just in the methodology that permits identifications of past-life memories with particular deceased persons but in the overall patterns that emerge from studying the huge number of these cases that have been accumulated over the past 60 years. Matlock comes to these cases not just as an investigator but also as a theorist. How do we explain the apparent phenomenon of reincarnation? he wants to know. What exactly allows the personality, skills, and memories of a deceased individual to appear in a similar constellation in a child born some time later?

The last chapter of Signs of Reincarnation is devoted to these theoretical considerations, and while I found Matlock’s entire book wonderfully engrossing, as a philosopher, I was most appreciative of this final chapter. I was very impressed by Matlock’s careful attention to the question of personal identity–what makes two human beings the same (reincarnated) person?–and to the larger metaphysical questions concerning how the brain is able to interact with an immaterial mind. Matlock points out the difficulties encountered by Cartesian substance dualism and advocates instead for an “idealist mind/body dualism,” according to which “[m]aterial things, including bodies, are, ultimately, creations of consciousness” (p. 257). That is, everything in the world is derived from consciousness, though our physical bodies obviously have some characteristics that differ from the part of our consciousness that endures the death of those bodies. Nevertheless, because our bodies and minds are ultimately of the same basic nature, we can hope to eventually understand how they are able to interact with one another. This, I believe, is precisely the sort of view that holds the most promise for future research, and I am grateful to Matlock for laying out the case for it so clearly and methodically.

Signs of Reincarnation truly is a must-have book for anyone with a serious interest in the evidence for reincarnation and its implications for our wider view of the world. It’s engaging enough that I quickly read it cover to cover, and yet it is so thoroughly documented and referenced that I know I’ll be coming back to it for years to come.

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